Why Skyrim could be Awesome

It’s easy to bash Skyrim, it’s such a huge vast target that you can’t really miss.  I don’t want to bash it.  I certainly do want to acknowledge the insane amount of work that clearly went into it and the games before it, the lore building, the world building, the quest complexity, it’s all there in front of you.  The team who put it together clearly love it, and it has millions of fans around the world.  Many hail it as the pinnacle of computer based roleplaying, almost equivalent to tabletop, albeit it a solo effort rather than group based.

For me though, while Skyrim certainly reaches for the sky, it doesn’t quite manage to grasp the prize.  So this isn’t a dig at Skyrim, it’s a bunch of things I think could have been done that would have resulted in hitting that elusive target.

Less defaulting to amoral activity

Skyrim is all about choice, some people say.  It’s a sandbox world in which you can do anything you like, experience the game any way you wish.  But that’s frustratingly not true.  Too many quests have only a single outcome, too many quests involve only one route to completion.  Many of the quests force an amoral attitude, if you want to complete it then you have to basically be a certain kind of character.

You are asked at one point to shut down a Skooma smuggling operation.  Excellent, here’s a chance, I thought, for me to employ my superior speech skill to convince the smugglers they need to move out before Something Bad Happens.  Alas no, the moment you get within 50 feet of the cave entrance, you get attacked, and the next 20 minutes is spent slaughtering everyone in the cave, including a barkeep.

If there was choice, then you would be able to talk your way in, convince them to shut up shop (or convince them to give you their proceeds so you can lie and say you shut them down) and move out.  Sure, you should be able to slaughter them if you want, but it shouldn’t be the only resolution.

I already blogged about one quest where I wanted to help out the Jarl and his son and ended up with almost no choice but to steal an evil sword.

When I first went to Riften, I ended up in the ‘join the Thieves guild’ quest line almost by accident (more on that problem later).  Despite not having a personal investment in the world (see below), I had been trying to play an honourable and noble warrior, staying out of trouble and not stealing anything.  I met a character in Riften who seemed to be poised to try and take out the Thieves guild.  That sounded like a good idea, so I went looking, but the only thing I could find was how to join.  I did a little bit of reading on the web and sure enough, you can join, and the only eventual outcome of that chain of quests is to restore the Thieves guild to its former glory.

No choice to destroy it, and you miss out on a massive set of quests if you don’t join and take part.  Fine, if you really don’t want to play a rogue you don’t do the quests, or maybe you start a new character another time and play everything sneaky and evil.  But you’re forced to either be a burglar and thug or not do the quest line at all.  Where’s the choice there?  Where is the depth and the involvement in the world?  I’d rather have a few less kill the bandit quests and instead get two or three quest lines in Riften where you can either join the guild, work to destroy it, or work to destroy it only to find out it serves some higher purpose and then have to change sides half way through.

That’s choice, that allows me to define my character by my choices, not by the quests I end up falling into.

So, yes, there are ‘good’, ‘neutral’ and ‘bad’ quests, but there are few, if any, quests which offer multiple outcomes depending on how you play them out.  As a counterpoint, there is absolutely one quest which did this, and I was so pleased.  In a temple you work with a priest to destroy an evil artefact, right at the last moment you are tempted by it and offered the choice of killing the priest or continuing with the destruction.  It’s a tiny moment of choice, but it allowed me to define my character in the world.  More of that, less of the Whispering Door rubbish.

More personalised investment

The epic nature of the game is certainly impressive; civil war, end of the world, return of dragons, etc.  But in Skyrim you are left to find your own personal motivation and personal investment.  That’s certainly one way of doing things.  Perhaps experienced roleplayers can invent their own personal story, but I can’t help feeling that the game would have been more epic, more involving if the was some personal back-story for your character early on.

Of course, you can invent your own.  You start out in chains after all, so you get to choose why you were arrested; falsely accused, petty thief, involved in a sinister assassination attempt, the choices are endless.  However, because they’re endless, you have to be a very specific kind of player to keep one in mind.  I’m not suggesting the development team should have come up with 8 specific back story options and forced you to choose one (although it works well in my view in Dragon Age), but you start the game adrift in a sea of choice, and without anything to ground you, the first few quests seem impersonal.

I would have liked to see either some early conversations where you can work out your own back story, or a more specific personal involvement in the ongoing story.  You become the Dragonborn, and you develop a place and reputation in the world from your actions, but I didn’t feel part of the world because I didn’t feel connected to it from the outset.

Fewer instances of ‘what are you talking about’?

I get it, really.  The world is vast!  There are hundreds of intersecting quests, thousands of NPC’s, millions of lines of dialog, and probably more ways to journey through the game than there are neural connections in the brain or something.  So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that every now and again you get a piece of dialog that makes no sense.

But it’s not every now and again, it’s reasonably common once you step out of the first major location.  Travel somewhere new, and talk to a random stranger, and end up in a dialog about how sad it is that a third girl is dead.  Huh, I thought, which girl?  Later you stumble onto the crime scene and everything becomes clear.  This could be handled much more elegantly, with the first person saying “Oh, haven’t you heard about the deaths then …” but no, they just assume you know, and your character just goes along as if you do, all the while in your head your screaming “who are you and what are you talking about”.

Again, if it was a one-off, like the amoral quests, it wouldn’t be so bad, but it’s common.  You get the back end of a conversation because you didn’t walk into the city using the right route, or you moved slightly quicker than the developers thought anyone might or you didn’t quite complete a conversation they thought you would.

Like I say, I get it, it must be almost impossible to QA this kind of stuff, on this kind of scale, in a sandbox environment.  I’d just like it to be more polished.  It’s not just Skyrim that suffers from this, there’s elements of it in Fallout and Dragon Age as well, but I can’t remember a single instance of it ever in Mass Effect.  Clearly the scope of Skyrim and the open nature of the world is far greater than Mass Effect, but I just wish there could be mechanisms in place to reduce the chance of it happening.

Wait, what quest?

I like the feature that over hearing people speak gives you a quest, it’s nice.  I like the bounty quests, I like the barkeep rumour quests, and I like how most of the quests in the game are handed out.  But there are times when you think, wait, how did I get into this, I don’t want do to this, and there’s nothing you can do.  You can’t remove the quest, so you either ignore it, or you complete it.

In Riften, I spoke to a guy in the market place, and before you knew it, I was stuck with the first step in joining the Thieves guild.  Sure, I could have not bothered, but I got into the conversation to find out more, to see if there was something I could do to stop the guild.  However, the only dialog options that seemed to present an opportunity led to me suddenly being in a position where I was expected to set some guy up for a crime he didn’t do.

This isn’t (as usual) the only example of this kind of thing.  You end up hunting people down, trying to get their debts cleared, and a whole bunch of other things by simply having a conversation.  Because you know these quests will likely only have one route to completion (see above), you sometimes don’t want to go further, but there’s no way for most of the quests to back out once you’ve started.  Also, because the vast majority of the game is amoral you feel if you want to actually see any of the quests, you’re going to have to suck it up and play the bad guy every now and then, even if you started out trying to be noble.

I’d like to see a way to get out of quest, or a more obvious moment in the conversation where you might find yourself tied into actions you don’t want to be associated with.  I don’t want hand holding, I don’t want huge signs telegraphing the intent of my quest giver, I like murky quests where you’re not sure if you’re doing the right thing, but if you’re doing that, you need a way to stop, change your mind and back out with actual quest results.

Romance? Forget romance!

You can get married in Skryim.  If it’s not the most pathetic example of in-game marriage in existence I’m not sure what is.  To get married, you wear a special necklace, tell someone you like them, and then get married.  Subsequently you can take money from them every day and use them as a vendor in your house.  That’s it.  No interesting dialog options, no relationship, no significant impact.  You earn more money and you can sell things from the comfort of your own home.

In fact, being married felt pretty much like buying the alchemy table furnishing for your house – you should just be able to buy a spouse from the Jarl like you do a kitchen table.

If marriage was added at the last minute as a cynical attempt to gain interest with a certain group of gamers, then it’s both shocking and tactless.  If it was developed from the outset as a specifically included element of the game, then it’s badly thought out and badly implemented as well as shocking and tactless.

At least let me build a relationship, or learn something about the person in question, not just recover a single mammoth tusk (from another vendor) and then show her my shiny new necklace.

If any single thing in the game is a clear demonstration of why it has no soul, then marriage in Skyrim is surely it.

More soul

This is covered to some extent in the amoral section above, but I wish Skyrim had more soul.  I wish your actions had more permanent impact.  If you kill everyone in a house, even if you get away without being recognised, surely there should be talk about it in the tavern to make you feel guilty or glow with evil pride?  When you set out on a quest for noble reasons, you should feel as though the people are truly impacted, not just that they now like you enough to let you take things from their shop without it being classed as stealing.  It’s not an easy quality to get, and it is probably earned through an increase in the above elements, but without soul, Skyrim is just roleplaying by numbers.


Is it epic?  Can I be anything I want?  Do I control my own destiny?  The answer to these questions is yes, as long as you don’t mind being a soulless amoral killer with no ties to the world and a trophy spouse.

Am I still playing?  Is it enjoyable?  Yes, I am still playing, because if you just accept the lack of choice, if you just accept that you’re going to be basically an amoral killer, then the mechanics can be fun, and the game can present some challenge.  But, it could have been so much more.  So. Much. More.

Moria – Epic Quest line

Turbine launched the Moria expansion to Lord of the Rings online in November 2008.  Last night, I finally finished the epic quest line (Volume 2), along with some friends.  We put in a lot of effort to finish that quest line, and even with a few extra levels from the Mirkwood expansion some of the group quests were challenging.

It feels good to finally get it complete.  We’re almost up-to-date with all the epic quests, despite the new stuff added with Enedwaith.  That’ll be an interesting situation if we finally catch up – it’ll be the first time since the game went live that any of us are ahead of the game in terms of all the epic content.

Random MMO Frustrations: #1 – varying difficulty for class based quests

I find a few things about MMO game design frustrating.  One thing that’s on my mind at the moment is when every class has to do something to get a class specific reward, but those somethings vary in difficulty (often by a great amount).  A specific example would be the Moria Class Quests for Legendary Traits in the Lord of the Rings Online.

The rewards are obtained by doing a little quest line, which leads up to a kill in one of the Moria 6-man instances.  Each of the instances in question supports two of the classes (who need different kills).  So, each class has one quest, that one quest takes place in one of the instances, two classes share an instance but have different creatures in that instance.

Now when the designers put the instances together, they made them vary in difficulty.   This is fine, I think MMO content should vary, some should suit certain style groups, and some should encourage people to look at their gear or their skills (or in Lord of the Rings online, their traits, etc.)

The problem comes when class X has no choice but to do instance Y to get their reward, while class B can do instance C.  If instance C is generally considered to be easier than instance Y, you’re going to generate unhappiness.  Easier of course is subjective.  Maybe it’s easier because the players have a lot of Hunters and no Guardians, or because their general tactics suit that particular instance.  But it doesn’t really matter why it’s easier, or even harder, that variation without choice causes friction.

Here’s a live example.  Our little group is struggling to beat one of the encounters in the Forges instance, we need to complete all the bosses so that we can get to the final mob for the Loremaster quest.  However, in the 16th Hall, once we’d worked the wrinkles out, we beat the whole instance quite easily, and not only that, but we only needed to kill the 1st boss to get to the Runekeeper quest mob.

There’s no good in-game reason for this.  It just causes friction.  Yes, it means you are forced to see all the instances if you want to see all the class quests, but being forced into stuff is never good.  It’s bad design.  I suspect it went like this.  Developer X designs a bunch of instances (or more likely, several developers do), and they vary in toughness and mindset.  This is find.  Deveoper Y is tasked with putting in the rewards for class traits somewhere in the game, and decides to put them into the instances, they pick them almost at random, and place the final mobs at random (behind boss 1, at the start, at the end) without really considering the different difficulties this will impose.

The instances and the quests were not designed together.

It’s bad design in my view.  And it could be easily avoided.  Each class could be told to ‘bring the head of a terror from the depths of Moria’.  The final boss in each instance could then drop 1 or 2 heads (or ears, or whatever body part makes sense).  People can then choose the instance they want to do to get their reward.   Yes, it means people can pick the ‘easy’ instance, but then designers should strive to make them all challenging.  But it would reduce the friction and ensure different classes didn’t get the short or long stick.

This is only one example, there are many (like the 2.0 Epic quests in EverQuest, where the final fights varied widely in difficulty, not to mention the run-up quests and mobs).

Content difficulty should always vary, but if you’re going to design a bunch of quests, one per class, then you should ensure each class can choose to follow an equally difficult route to their reward.